This form, although originally found in mediaeval Provence in southern France, has been more used in Italy than in France, and, as the English form of the word indicates, was introduced into England under Italian influence. It was invented at the end of the thirteenth century, by the troubadour (wandering singer and poet) Arnaut Daniel.Some critical comments
The common form of the sestina has six stanzas of six lines each, with a terset (three-line stanza) at the end. There is usually no rhyme, but the stanzas are based on six end-words, which are the same in all stanzas; in the terset three of these words are used in the middle of the lines, and three at the ends. The order of the end-words changes in each stanza according to a complex system: thus (in the common modern form) if the end-words of the first stanza be represented by: 1 2 3 4 5 6. The order in the later stanzas will be as follows:
Sometimes the end-words rhyme by twos and threes.
- second stanza: 6 1 5 2 4 3
- third stanza: 3 6 4 1 2 5
- fourth stanza: 5 3 2 6 1 4
- fifth stanza: 4 5 1 3 6 2
- sixth stanza: 2 4 6 5 3 1
Only one of Kipling's efforts in this vein presents no prob- lem. "The Sestina of the Tramp-Royal" is an absolutely regular, conventional sestina, following exactly the intricate arrangement of end-words laid down for it. Even the envoy is perfect. What is more important, it does not appear labored. It is possible to read it without noticing that the same six words appear at the end of the six lines of each of the six stanzas in changing order.This poem is still cited in Fowler’s Modern English Usage (OUP 2004, p. 705) with W. H. Auden’s “Paysage Moralisé”, as examples of the genre; and Wikipedia cites the oldest British example of the form:
"The Sestina" is a real achievement. It is difficult to employ a French form so naturally that its rules and recurrences do not thrust themselves upon the reader. To frame one of them into a powerful poem is extremely rare. As we have seen, Kipling is not afraid to break the mold when it suits his purpoes to do so, but he is also able to do good work when he has confined him- self within narrow limits. In his hands the combination of Cockney dialect and an extremely artificial thirteenth-century French form is not comic, but impressive. There can be no greater tribute to his skill than this.
... a pair of sestinas (frequently referred to as a double sestina), "Ye Goat-Herd Gods", written by Philip Sidney. Writers such as Dante, Petrarca, A. C. Swinburne, Rudyard Kipling, Ezra Pound, W. H. Auden, John Ashbery, Joan Brossa, Miller Williams, Elizabeth Bishop, Paul Muldoon and Joe Haldeman are all noted for having written sestinas of some fame.The poem was written in 1896, the year in which the Kipling's, harassed by their quarrel with Beattie Balestier, returned to England. During his last two months in Vermont. as Charles Carrington recounts (p. 239):
One day in July Rudyard sat down and completed, in a few hours, a composition in one of the most rigorous of all verse-forms. He called it “Sestina of the Tramp-Royal.”The poem is neatly encapsulated by G. K. Chesterton is his essay “On Mr. Rudyard Kipling and Making the World Small" in Heretics (1905) pp. 38-53, part of which is collected in Kipling, the Critical Heritage, edited by Roger Lancelyn Green (p.293):
The first and fairest thing to say about Rudyard Kipling is that he has borne a brilliant part in recovering the lost provinces of poetry ... .And Bonamy Dobrée writes (p. 174):
Mr. Kipling, with all his merits is the globe-trotter; he has not the patience to become part of anything. So great and genuine a man is not to be accused of a merely cynical cosmopolitanism; still, his cosmopolitanism is his weakness. That weakness is splendidly expressed in one of his finest poems “The Sestina of the Tramp Royal”, in which a man declares that he can endure anything in the way of hunger or horror, but not permanent presence in one place.
Whatever opinion may be held of him as a poet, it is agreed that he was brilliant in versification. Some of his verse admittedly is jungle, but of set purpose, and always disciplined, prosodically controlled. He could handle all sorts of metres, while his rhythms are complex, sometimes indeed subtle……He was at home in the heroic couplet, common measure, ballad forms; the iambic or the rollicking anapaest as well as more difficult prosodic units ...[An anapaest is a metrical foot of three syllables, the first two short, the last long: Ed.]
His ballades are poor, his few sonnets, though one or two of them are good poems, are unimpressive as sonnets, lacking the structural movement. His one triumphant success in an exacting form being “Sestina of the Tramp Royal”. His long poems tend to be too protracted, though exception must be made of the great monologues ”McAndrew’s Hymn” and “The Mary Gloster” to which must be added the semi-dialogue “Tomlinson”.